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Russia: Flaws and Pitfalls of the Subsidized “Social” Internet Plan

PM Vladimir Putin meets with Minister of Communications and Mass Media Igor Shchegolev (Photo: premier.gov.ru).

The Russian authorities continue to work on reducing the digital divide in the country. A few months ago, the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service (FAS) [ENG] started [RUS] regulating Internet access prices through prosecution of some of the local telecommunication operators. Now, in addition to this type of regulation, the government is working on providing subsidized Internet to those who can't afford it. Last week, Igor Shchegolev, the Russian minister of communications and mass media, notified [ENG, RUS] prime minister Vladimir Putin that the country's largest, state-controlled access provider Svyazinvest [ENG] would be launching a subsidized Internet access plan.

Сейчас, в связи с тем, что у нашего населения большие ожидания, что тарифы будут сопоставимы по всей стране, компания приняла решение ввести так называемый социальный тариф. Он будет фиксированный. Это будет небольшая скорость доступа, но тем не менее он будет позволять пользоваться информационными услугами, государственными услугами. Там, где есть преимущественно текстовая информация. За доступ к видеоинформации и к более сложным услугам придется платить дополнительно. Но те, кому нужна будет базовая информация, смогут приобретать это по умеренным тарифам.

Now since the population of Russia expects rates to be comparable across the entire country, the company has decided to introduce a so-called social rate. It will be fixed. It will not provide high-speed internet access, but it will nevertheless provide access to information and government services, to webpages primarily containing information in text form. Access to video information and more complex services will require additional payment, but those who need basic information will have access to it at reasonable rates.

According to Shchegolev, the speed of the “Social Internet Plan” will be 64kbps. The price of access will vary between 250-500 rubles ($8-$18) monthly. However, in the Far East the “Social Internet Plan” will be much more expensive due to infrastructural problems.

The “Social Internet Plan” is not the only state initiative to reduce the digital divide. A few days earlier, a presidential working group for Aerospace and Telecommunications approved [RUS] a “Social Plug“ project. The “Social Plug” is a special panel that will include access to three radio channels, eight public TV channels and limited Internet access to “socially important” websites. Furthermore, it will have an “emergency” button (112 service, which is the Russian analogue of 911) and a loudspeaker for emergency situations that can be used by authorities for notification of the citizens (a picture of “social plug” can be viewed here). The monthly cost of the plug will be 50 rubles (less than $2). For additional payment, it will also be possible to get broadband Internet access via the “Social Plug.”

The “Social Plug” project was first introduced to president Medvedev in 2009 by the Moscow Municipal Radiobroadcasting Network (MGRS) and was approved by the Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov in a special order “On organization of Moscow’s population notification in peace and war emergency times” [RUS]. However, the current project goes far beyond the Russian capital. The system is to be established in 39 biggest cities. According to some estimates, some 30 percent of the Russian population are supposed to have “Social Plug” in the next five years. The project's budget is 50 billion rubles (almost $2 billion). MGRS has already launched a pilot version and installed the plug in 560 Moscow apartments.

“The ‘Social Plug’ is a real step towards information society, aimed at reducing digital inequality. It is a sure way to provide e-government services for citizens”, said [RUS] the general director of MGRS Vyacheslav Ivanyuk.

There is no doubt that the Russian initiative to reduce the digital divide and make the Internet accessible to everyone is more than welcome. However, the new initiatives also raise several significant concerns. The first concern is about the prices of the subsidized Internet plan as well as about its speed. The information that 64kbps Internet will cost between 250 to 500 rubles upset Russian Internet users.

Aleksei wrote:

Huge prices for social Internet in Russia – 64-128kbps for 500 rubles. Wow!

LJ user andrey-fromfili wrote [RUS]:

Текстовый интернет и дополнительная платная услуга за видео. Они кого опережают, таксофон?

Text-only Internet and additional payment for video content. Are they competing with public payphones?

User grandmother commented on a Komsomolskaya Pravda article [RUS]:

У меня безлимитный интернет 1000мб/с за 500 руб. Скорость устраивает, говорю и вижу своих детей и внуков по скайпу. А нам нищим пенсионерам предлагают непонятно что и за теже 500 руб. Опять одно воровство. Путин должен спросить нашу молодежь по этому тарифу, они все знают. А чиновники как всегда обманывают.

I have unlimited access 1mbps for 500 rubles. The speed is enough for me, I can talk to and see my children and grandchildren on Skype. But they are offering us, poor pensioners, something unreasonable for the same 500 rubles. Again, nothing but robbery. Putin should ask our young people what the real price is. Bureaucrats are cheating, as always.

User groal suggested that the high prices of “social Internet” is another example of corruption:

провинция Псков плачу за инет 250 рублей за 1 мегабит.. кому то явно откатов захотелось думаю социальный инет должен стоить 100 руб и не больше при скорости 512 мегабит а всё остальное это распиливание госбюджета

I am from a province, Pskov. I pay 250 rubles for 1mbps. It looks as if someone wants to have some money for himself. I think social Internet shouldn't cost more than 100 rubles at the speed of 512kbps. Any other price is just a manipulation with the budget for their own profit.

According to user Ivan, the new “social Internet” may cause an increase in commercial prices:

Ну всё ребята! Цена на социальный определена, теперь ждите повышения цен на Интернет. А вообще люди, получающие миллионные зарплаты вряд ли понимают, что 500 руб. и 5 руб. это совсем разные деньги!

That's it, guys! Now that they've set the social price, we should expect Internet prices to grow. Generally, people who earn millions probably can't understand the difference between 500 and 5 rubles.

However, some users noted that the situation is different in Russia's remote regions. Arseniy suggested that it was better not to measure the situation everywhere according to the Moscow standards. According to his comment at Komsomolskaya pravda website, his provider offered 512kbps Internet access for 800 rubles. Another reader, La Vesce, wrote that in Sakhalin, 512kbps access cost him 2,000 rubles.

Indeed, the “Social Internet Plan” is not relevant for many Russian regions. According to a Yandex research [RUS], the average speed of the Internet in big Russian cities in 2009 was between 410-1100kbps. The average speed in Moscow and Saint Petersburg is much higher (8.5mbps and 7.4mbps, respectively). Moreover, the research says that the average price of the 1mbps speed Internet in Russia is about 500-600 rubles per month. It could be attractive for the Far East, where the average is 1,465 rubles, but, according to Shchegolev, the price of social Internet in remote places will also be higher. Moreover, some of the companies already have some kind of “social plans.”

However, the prices are not the only issue raised by the new initiative. Since the goal of these projects is to provide access to a specific type of content, it raises significant concerns about the net neutrality [ENG] of the “Social Plug” and “Social Internet Plan” projects. LJ user Shatunmedved asks [RUS]:

Интересно, какие по мнению правительства сайты самые социально значимые?

I wonder what, in the government's view, the most socially important web sites are.

Indeed, it appears that the subsidized Internet will provide access to a very specific, limited segment of the Internet, which is based in Russia and has primarily text content. Moreover, some of the official statements confirm that the project is approached as a way to ensure the success of e-government development plans. It’s not clear if the limitation of access will be done only through the limitation of access speed or through the limitation of available websites as well.

To better understand the “Social Plug” project, one should recall its historical predecessor: a radiotochka. The Soviet radio broadcasting services [ENG] were based on a network of wired radio and sound devices [RUS]. The device, called a radiotochka (a radio plug), could broadcast several governmental radio stations (depending on the number of buttons it had). Usually, every Soviet kitchen was equipped with a “radiotochka.”

photo by Samdj1210

A classical Soviet "radiotochka" at hotel in Ulan Ude. Photo by flickr-user Samdj2010.

One can imagine applying the “radiotochka” model for the Internet. Button #1 is for the government news website; button #2 is for the e-government portal, and button #3 is for the government search engine.

It’s certainly just a metaphor and, perhaps, its proper place is in some dystopia. But the “radiotochka” model definitely represents the logic behind the “Social Plug”: it is actually a modernization of the old Soviet “radio plug” model. Moreover, a system that provides authorities with an option of having its voice heard in every house is really something out of George Orwell’s “1984.”

The possibility of a “Social Plug” becoming a new “radiotochka” is very limited. The idea to modernize the Soviet concept made some Russians smile. Denis Proshin wrote:

Russian citizens will get “social Internet” through a “radio plug.” The only thing left to do is to start providing Internet through the water pipes, hahaha.

The “Social Plug” may turn out to be a technological rudiment from its launch. According to the Computerra web portal [RUS], Moscow Internet providers are not interested in using the “Social Plug” system, as they already have their own infrastructure. Moreover, the website reminds its readers that most Russian citizens continue to pay some 34 rubles for the existing “radio plugs” that remain from the Soviet times: it's very difficult to waive this service, even though it is useless for the majority of the population.

At the same time, the “Social Plug” model can exceed all expectations and fulfill the prognosis of Michael Gurevitch, deputy director of a major Russian Internet company RBC, who recently said this [ENG] to GV:

I believe that the majority of Russians will take advantage of this free option and will find it satisfying. They won’t want to expand the range of available sites if they have such a free option.

In this case, the violation of the net neutrality by both Russian “social Internet” initiatives can contribute to the development of the state-affiliated national cyberzone and isolationism tendencies in the RuNet. In other words,  the new plan of the Russian government can be interpreted not only as an attempt to make Internet more easily available to the Russian citizens, but also as a chance to prioritize a certain segment of the Internet as a part of the sovereign internet [ENG] creation.

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